A dead bird, beautifully rendered in colored pencil, lies in the center of the white paper, surrounded by a triangle of exquisitely drawn flies. A fourth fly points away from the bird, as do the three in the triangle.
The insects are, unnaturally, ignoring the carcass. That’s because they’re symbols in Francisco Souto’s drawing, as is the bird.
The flies represent the Venezuelan government, embodying by looking away, its willful neglect of the people, who are enduring years of unrest and economic distress.
The bird comes via Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who has used an imaginary bird to stand in for his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, in his speeches.
“He’d say, ‘I have a little bird that’s Chavez’s spirit right here; let me listen to him,’” Souto said. “You can’t be playing with people like that. I just wanted that little bird to be dead.”
Souto's powerful “Little Bird” resonates for viewers even without knowledge of its symbolism. And with that knowledge, it brings to mind highly symbolic 17th- and 18th-century European paintings.
It is the pivotal piece in “Dicotomias,” Souto’s ongoing exhibition at Kiechel Fine Art.
“Dicotomias” is a follow-up to his 2016 exhibition “A Memory in Peril,” which looked at the social and cultural upheaval in Souto’s homeland through highly detailed black-and-white drawings of protesters, police, and women on the street, as well as of kids playing and, poignantly, sharing the only scrap of bread they have to eat.
The first drawings of the 21 in the new exhibition make a direct connection with the previous show — two boys sitting with a board playing “Chess” and “Four Girls” looking straight ahead.
Yet those new images have subtle — but important — differences with their predecessors. The children are drawn larger than in the previous pieces, and the multicolored striping based on the Venezuelan flag along the bottom of the paper is gone, opening the imagery up to children around the world.
After creating those drawings, Souto made an innovation in medium, exchanging black graphite for colored pencils. Rarely utilized in “fine art,” colored pencils are difficult to use to get a consistency and weight of marks and a full range of color.
A master craftsman, Souto procured hundreds of colored pencils from manufacturers around the world, and he drew — painstakingly. Sometimes he would make just one mark with a pencil before setting it aside for another with a similar color or different texture.
The colored-pencil drawings also became symbolic, with the flies (there are more than 40 altogether) found in all the images.
Those drawings include “Futbol” — with an old soccer ball in the center of the canvas, an image that almost shouts Latin America — and “Bicycle,” which refers to the kids in the other drawings with a bike, for some reason left behind.
Powerfully resonant are the drawings of food, like the brownish potato of “Rotten,” with ts implication that it will be consumed by starving people regardless of the spoilage.
The show ends with a suite of seven small paintings of fruit and flies that are technical and symbolic masterworks.
The drawings are thick and luminous, the edges of the fruit shining in the light and contrasting with the rich, dark passages that look like they were created with oil paint.
And they mark a full return to Venezuela, with the bottom stripes back on the pieces and the fruits and flies symbolically echoing the drawings of “A Memory in Peril.”
In “Bound,” for example, a small green tomato leans against a large ripe one — stand-ins for a mother and child — while a row of blueberries in “In Line” mirrors “Long Food Line,” an 8-foot drawing of people waiting to pick up food that was one of the most powerful pieces from the previous show.
“A Memory in Peril” delivered Souto’s passion and pain for his homeland in direct fashion, the graphite imagery conveying social upheaval and the burden it is placing on children through detailed realism.
“Dicotomas” does the same — arguably more effectively — with the symbolism taking the work to a deeper, more engaging level that puts meaning into everyday objects, fruit and even flies.